Category Archives: Books

Endlessly amused by people’s minds?

hidden dangerLet me tell you an abbreviated version of one of the recollections from Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz in his book “The Examined Life.”

Girl meets boy in medical school. She’s Jewish, he’s Catholic.

Her father forbids her to marry him. She marries the boy and her parents break off all contact with her, for 18 years.

Eventually her mother reconciles with her after divorcing her father, a doctor. He’d been having an affair for years with his blonde, blue-eyed, Christian employee.

The affair had started long before the girl went to med school. The daughter described her father this way, “the bigger the front, the bigger the behind.” Stephen Grosz says, “Typically, we want to see ourselves as good, and put those aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group.” Actually the daughter’s description is pretty succinct. Grosz thinks it’s a good phase too.

Grosz has selected 31 interesting patient/analyst stories from his more than 25 years in practice, and over 50,000 hours of conversations with patients.

Each short and engrossing story is his distilled account of conversations with patients covering all sorts of behaviors, thoughts and insights. Just as most peoples’ stories are unique, each story is different and attempts to figure out and understand the hidden motivations driving his patients.

People don’t like being ignored and need to feel that someone is listening to them. Grosz meets both of these needs for his patients and often gives them, and us, penetrating insights into the “why” of human behavior.

The stories are current and timely accounts of present-day patients told without  psychological jargon. If you’re amused or intrigued by peoples’ minds you’ll enjoy “The Examined Life.”


How light can you get your backpack and still be safe and comfortable? Pretty light is the answer. It can be pared down to well under ten pounds for everything other than your food and water.

Lately I’m more of an armchair backpacker. But when I’ve backpacked in the past I always tried to take as little as possible.

Now longtime backcountry guide and cartoonist Mike Clelland, has written and illustrated a cool little book called “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips.” It’s full of interesting ideas for getting your gear weight down to an almost unnoticeable load.

By adopting an anti-hoarding mentality and using a (postal type) scale you can go a long way to lightening your load because every once or gram left at home will make you more comfortable on the trail. Probably more than anything, using a scale and noting weights just creates an awareness and removes guessing.

After the weigh-in, start separating your wants and needs. That fancy knife, for example, will rarely be used. Clelland takes along a cheap single-edged razor blade in a cardboard sheath made from a piece of cereal box.

What about the cost of going ultralight? Lighter is often cheaper. He has lots of tips like the razor blade instead of a knife such as a reused water bottle instead of a heavier more expensive nalgene bottle, a tarp instead of a high-tech tent, or a reading clipped articles instead of a book.

Test drive your new kit in the backyard or on a quick trip first to know it all works for you. It does work. Mike Clelland is part of the lineage of ultralight backpacking pros who (in my mind) started with Ray Jardine. As a side note, Jardine is one of the most accomplished outdoors person, not just in backpacking, I know of. I’ll tell you about Ray another time.

If you’re in the least bit fascinated by minimalism, comfort, or being able to more fully enjoy the backcountry without a pack animal, or being one yourself, get Mike’s book. You’ll be entertained and come away smarter. And that’s not all! His illustrations are part of the Robert Crumb lineage of drawing, which is a compliment too.




What’s the latest in health?

ride your bike

What are the current best practices for health and wellness?

Gretchen Reynolds covers the health beat for her NYT column  “Phys Ed.” Her new book is called “The First 20 Minutes,”  offering health tips and insights from the latest research. Some popularly held health and fitness myths break down under scientific scrutiny but some practical tips and information take their place.

The book is clearly written but rambles a bit. I liked it, but a few of my friends who’ve started reading it didn’t finish. The rambling and sometimes nerdy material is there  providing credibility and the background for information she’s providing.

Here’re some takeaway ideas I liked:

Be active. Many negative health outcomes previously thought to stem from aging actually come from being a couch potato, one of the biggest threats to your health.

Fitness isn’t always healthy. Being fit doesn’t always mean being healthy. Fitness is more about performance than health. If you can run 26.2 miles, it doesn’t mean you’re not “skinny fat,” without a heart problem, or more susceptible to colds for example.

To lose weight, exercise before (a protein) breakfast.

The first 20 minutes are the most important. You’ll get the biggest health benefit (different from fitness) during the first 20 minutes of exercise. Use the minimum effective dose (MED), do what’s needed – not as much as you can. Shoot for 150 minutes a week of walking or light exercise split up however you prefer.

Don’t stretch. Stretching before exercising is actually counterproductive.

Increase the load. To improve fitness performance you need to overload, causing an adaptive response in your body. Overload by increasing the weight, intensity, or frequency from workout to workout.

Stand more. Just standing more (than sitting) can contribute to your daily energy expenditure without setting off the mechanism that tries to compensate for calories burned.

Lift weights. Strength training slows the health declines from aging. If you want to keep it really simple, just do squats.

Drink when you’re thirsty. Our bodies use thirst to let us know when they need more water. Over hydration isn’t good.

You don’t need special foods. If you’re exercising less than 90 minutes water is best. Real foods can work when you need to eat during long sessions. And the best recovery drink is… low-fat chocolate milk.

Vitamins and antioxidant supplements are not helpful.

Don’t stop with my takeaways. There’s more information in the book which might be more important or useful for you.


What is Commuting Time’s Value?

day off to a bad startLife in the suburbs isn’t always as rosy as it’s made out to be.

For example, how valuable is the time you spend every day commuting to work?

Turns out, it’s worth a lot. Let’s say you’re making a somewhat normal salary, around $55,000 a year, then reducing your daily driving commute can be valued as getting a $40,000 raise – by just removing the hourlong, each way, commute from your life.

This is one of the things Dan Buettner found when researching the keys to happiness for his book, “Thrive.” He’s a National Geographic Fellow who spent five years investigating the shared characteristics accounting for happiness in places like Denmark, Singapore, Mexico, and California. It wasn’t wealth, beauty, youth, or intelligence that made the happiest groups happy. What Buettner found was that a better quality of life had a bigger impact on people’s happiness.

The number one and two hated daily activities for Americans were housework and commuting. By moving closer to work and cutting out two hours a day of commuting in a car, an American would feel like the recipient of a $40,000 raise in terms of happiness.

I wonder what the value of being able to walk to work is?



Tales of two Daniels – part 2

new atmosphereThis is the second post about Daniel Ingram and Daniel Pinchbecks’  books about their different approaches into a similar territory. Each book details the author’s personal stories and adventures in pursuing higher realms which most people don’t normally access.

Just like we awaken from sleeping and dreaming to our daily reality, the authors seek access to yet another reality which can be awakened to from our daily reality.

Both books present unvarnished looks at their approaches to awakening to higher realities. Both authors feel big, modern governments and religions have repressed knowledge that was previously more known about and sought after. Pinchbeck investigates ancient shamanic medicines that have been used for generations, while Ingram talks about meditation technologies developed over the last 2,500 years.

I think Ingram’s book is a breath of fresh air. Daniel Ingram is a practicing board-certified MD in emergency medicine and founder of the Dharma Underground. The Dharma underground was a loose knit group of hardcore meditators sharing insights and techniques along with talking their attainments, all with the goal of providing clear information to counter the often wooly meditation instructions and the noticeable lack of discussion about levels of attainment.

Ingram wrote “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” to provide instructions and  maps for the meditators looking for advice from someone who’s reached an advanced level.

It’s sort of like a chess grand master or martial artist with a black belt explaining what is needed to progress and what to expect in their pursuit as well as some personal anecdotes and opinions.

The information Ingram provides isn’t new but it’s clear and pretty much every aspect of his chosen style (Buddha’s too) seems to be covered providing a less dangerous and more lasting path to the states that Pinchbeck got glimpses of. This book is refreshing because it ignores or pokes fun at the usual dogma and hierarchies, there’s no mention of fancy hats, robes or rituals . Instead, Ingram  presents an empowering view about how it can be done by you.

Pinchbeck sees an elephant, tries to eat it in a few bites and gets sick. Ingram sees the elephant too but lays out a meal plan and a chart of where you are while going from the trunk and the tail.


Tales of two Daniels – part 1

new atmosphereDaniel Ingram and Daniel Pinchbeck wrote books about their different approaches into  similar territories. Each book details the author’s personal stories and adventures in pursuing higher realms most people don’t normally access.

Just as we awaken from sleeping and dreaming to our daily reality, the authors seek yet another reality that people can awaken to from our daily reality.

Both books present unvarnished looks at their approaches to awakening to different realities. Both authors seem to feel that big, modern governments and religions have repressed knowledge that was previously more commonly known and sought after. Ingram goes deep into the meditation technologies developed over the last 2,500 years, while Pinchbeck investigates ancient shamanic medicines that have been used for generations.

Pinchbeck’s “Breaking Open The Head” is a fascinating and often scary tale about trying to access higher states and insights by taking different psychedelic substances. His book chronicles varying degrees of attainment and failure. After a while, I was left thinking about what Allen Watts said, “Once you get the message, hang up the phone!”

Pinchbeck is an enthusiastic investigator of both archaic and newer medicines, he’s a high-level technician test-driving little known and well-known shamanic inebriants, to paraphrase him. I was impressed Pinchbeck could go through the experiences he chronicles and could record or remember them in the detail he provides.

Indigenous peoples mainly use their sacred medicines for guidance, initiations or healing. Something has to be lost when  you’re not a member of the culture you’re dealing with. No one can avoid that.

By hoping between cultures around the world, Pinchbeck’s use of different medicines sometimes took on the feel of indiscriminate drug use, undermining, for Pinchbeck, some of the benefits tribe members get due to their cultural context and proper preparations.

Although he seems to go from one altered state to another, in the end Pinchbeck seems to feel that he has come away a better person.

While Pinchbeck accesses some higher planes and insights, most of them sound fleeting and incomplete. He’s ultimately pursuing a pleasure that comes and goes.

A friend of Pinchbeck tells him, “People are entering the lower realms of the spiritual world unbidden and unprepared, exposing themselves to delusions and deceptions… the soul-wrenching chaos of the psychedelic experience seems to lend itself to a sense of panic and dissipation. If one wants to have a positive effect on the world , inner calm and discrimination  are absolutely necessary.”

There’re slower, less dangerous, and more lasting paths than the chemical shortcuts Pinchbeck takes. One of those paths was taken by the other Daniel, who’ll be covered in the next post.





Is Sugar Fattening?


That’s the shortest answer.

If you want the whole story read “Why We Get Fat,” by Gary Taubes. It’s the more accessible follow up book to his widely acclaimed “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” which is a good book too, but it’s a slog getting through it because it’s so information dense.

I’m not really stealing his thunder by saying it doesn’t take much easily digested sugar to bump up our insulin which in turn signals our bodies to store more fat.

Nowadays we eat like we’re in (an endless) summer preparing our bodies for a harsh winter (that we actually never encounter). Most of the information Taubes goes over was known and well understood before the seventies came along demonizing fat and embracing carbs. All of which was supposed to make us healthier.

Look around, you don’t need any stats or figures – we’re fatter and unhealthier. That trend started with the shift that really took off in the seventies.

The book explains why obesity isn’t a character flaw, and energy equation imbalance, or a call for more exercise. If “Why We Get Fat” starts to get too detailed for you, just skim over it until you get to a more interesting topic. He’s just backing up his argument and so you won’t be lost if you jump ahead sometimes.

Taubes is the real deal as a science writer with other science related books and articles, he’s a physicist without any fuzzy thinking.

If you’re still eating the standard American diet you should read this book.

Food, warmth, and shelter

Kabloona” is one of the most interesting books I’ve read.

Kabloona is the Canadian Inuit name for a white person. A young Frenchman traveled to Northern Canada to spend time among the Inuit, who at that time in 1938, were still living as their ancestors had for thousands of years.

The  Frenchman, Gotran de Poncins, wrote about his year among the Inuit and it’s as absorbing now as it was when it was written.

This book is superb storytelling. You’re transported to a snow bench in an igloo, sitting in the light of a  seal oil lamp, listening to a story of conversion from European outsider to an accepted Inuit insider.

His first encounters with the Inuit are at the white man’s trading post. There, Inuit trade things they don’t value, like white fox pelts, for items of little value to the white man. Both sides feel they prevail in the trades.

Initially, Poncins perceives the Inuit who visited the trading post as dull, brooding, and beaten down. But, on venturing with them into their untamed Arctic, he marvels as they come to life.

Poncins is a diarist, not an anthropologist or scientist, and throws himself into the daily life of the Inuit. As his European cultural barriers fall away, he gains insights and an appreciation for their hard life, which on the surface seems consumed only with food, warmth, and shelter.

Of course Poncins is stunned by the cold that freezes a large freshly caught fish into a rock hard solid. And while living with them in their igloos, at first he’s put off by their hygiene, eating, and customs. The smells inside the igloo repel him. Eating raw or rotten fish and meat is shocking. And the degree of freely sharing possessions is the opposite of his world.

Comparing South Pacific islanders with the Inuit, Poncins found, “… happiness has nothing to do with climate: these Eskimos afforded me decisive proof that happiness is a disposition of the spirit… they were a cheerful people always laughing, never weary of laughter.” He came to enjoy their company and they seemed to like him too.

By embracing the Inuit and their ways, Poncins gives us an insider’s view of a world that’s now likely gone.



Are you an Unracer?

One of the few things I miss, living in a small Mexican town, is bike riding. The roads in our town are cobbled, so the riding is bumpy and jostling.

There’s one street here without cobblestones. All the others make for slow, bumpy biking. I have an old beater bike and its chain gets rattled off the sprocket regularly while riding on the cobblestones. Cycling on cobblestones is unpleasant enough that most folks in town don’t ride bikes much. Go to other towns in Mexico without cobbled streets, and there’re plenty of bikers.

I’ve been thinking about biking because I’m reading Just Ride by Grant Petersen,  who’s been biking a lot, for years. He’s in the bike business too, making non-trendy bikes for an enthusiastic niche market of people he calls unracers, which is what most people really are.

Petersen advocates just riding your bike. Like you did as a kid. Don’t concern yourself with bike racing culture and its sway over biking culture and unracers, who share almost nothing in common with race culture.

The bike business: bikes, parts, clothes, magazines, fitness and nutrition is all seen through the lens of bike racing. And that’s become an off-putting but seductive problem for most of the non racing bikers. It’s especially distracting for non bikers who might want to try biking a little bit but are intimidated by the dominating world of bike racers and wanna-be-racers.

Before the sixties unracers and racers had more in common. Those racers had little support during races so their bikes were sturdier and more practical.

Now, pro racers are supported throughout races. And they have multiple, specialized, not-built-for-the-long-haul bikes which are given to them new each year by their sponsors.

What racers need isn’t what unracers need. Petersen makes the case for a common sense approach to biking. A super light bike made of exotic materials, specialized pedals and shoes, biking clothes, or a bike sized for a 21-year-old pro racer aren’t what most people need. Petersen thinks you shouldn’t need to “get ready” to bike. The easier you make riding, the more likely you are to use a bike. Most of the racer culture gear inhibit you from just riding your bike. Make it easy and fun, and you’ll do it.

William Gibson

I just read a good book. It’s a collection of nonfiction articles written by fiction writer William Gibson. The book is “Distrust That Particular Flavor.”

Gibson is one of my favorite living authors. His fiction writing is about the near future and has been pretty good at conjuring up what’s just around the corner. Outside his tribe of admirers, Gibson is best known for coining the term “cyberspace.” Gibson was writing about cyberspace in 1984. Now in 2012, most people understand what you mean if you use the term.

Not known for writing nonfiction, he does a good job with it in articles and reviews collected from the past few decades. In “Distrust That Particular Flavor” Gibson shares his observations on a range of subjects from the attractive strangeness of Tokyo to the unrecognized strangeness of recordings.

For example, before epic storytelling and writing, people were forgotten within a couple of generations. Gibson points out that now, we not only can be aware of the dead but  experience them as well in a way that was until recently not possible. If a singer died and you’d never heard him, well… you never would. But now we have the ability to see and hear artists who’re gone. And we’re so used to it that we’ve forgotten how novel it is in our history. If Elvis had died 200 years ago his performances would be gone with him.

Each article in the book is followed by Gibson’s reflections on his writing and mindset when he wrote the article and what his opinion of the article is today, sort of like seeing “before and after pictures.” That’s interesting and so are the insights he shares in this collection.